Wisconsin lawmakers look to stiffen drunk driving penalties

Efforts are underway to stiffen drunk driving penalties in Wisconsin, especially for first time offenders. One idea would require all drunk driving offenders be breathalyzed before they take the wheel.

"People know the first offense is a slap on the wrist, it's a moving violation," said Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is the only state that does not criminalize first time drinking-and-driving offenses. Larson said it's time to create bigger consequences by increasing the penalty.

"We in Wisconsin unfortunately have a drinking-and-driving culture that is pervasive," he said.  

Larson proposes requiring all drunk driving offenders have breathalyzers called Ignition Interlock Devices installed in their vehicles for a year. If they blew above .08 BAC they wouldn’t be able to drive.

Currently, Wisconsin only requires them for repeat offenders and first time culprits with .15 BAC, which is nearly twice the legal limit.

"This proposal is nothing new,” said MADD Spokesman Frank Harris. “Thirty states plus Washington D.C. have laws similar to this and it's time for Wisconsin to be the next state."

The devices would cost each offender $2.50 a day or around $1,000 a year with installation fees. Within the past decade, these breathalyzers have stopped more than 211,000 drunk driving attempts in Wisconsin.

While this proposal still doesn't make a first offense a criminal act, St. Francis Police Chief Tom Dietrich believes it could potentially save lives.

"The benefits behind them outweigh the costs I think," he said.

In 2016, there were 193 deaths related to drunk driving in Wisconsin. Lawmakers sponsoring this bill hope to have it introduced in committee sometime early next year.

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